Wednesday 19 April 2023

I owe my sou' to the company sto'

I was talking to Dau.I The Book a tuthree weeks ago and heard that she was reading The Company Town: The Industrial Eden's and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy [2010 Basic Books] by Hardy Green. History, urban blight, industrial process are all in my wheelhouse, so I ordered it up as an Earbook through Borrowbox. Audiobooks are typically 8-15 hours long; Borrowbox has a loan-period of 20 days. You'd think that would be plenty time to finish. But no longer spending 90 minutes M-F commuting to work, and having a rich other life, means that it can be a gallop to wrap it up and return the book to circulation.

Industrialization and capitalism means that products and processes tend to get centralized and specialized. In early modern towns, numerous crafts, services and and workshops fulfilled almost all the needs of almost all the local inhabitants. The blacksmith could shoe a horse, forge a pike, make a gate or a grate and fix anything that was busted. Clearly not all the required resources [wood wool iron] were locally available but artisans and creators could modify the product to use [cheaper] local material. Slated roofs replaced by thatch; cob or timber walls if geology hadn't delivered good building stone. Builders and makers were flexible generalists.

Replacing the work of human hands with the power of water, coal and machinery is a scalable transition: one child can manage more than one steam-powered loom. Increased production means lower prices and more specialization. The modern 'blacksmith' shop produces only saws or only nails - in enormous quantities. The early entrepreneurs did still need warm bodies to change the bobbins, check for quality or pack each dozen of product into a box. Big enterprises dwarfed the labour market and needed to bring additional workers on-board quickly and cheaply. Many early magnates took it upon themselves to house these extra blow-in laborers . . . and the company town was born. Many of these were named for /by / after the Magnate: Corning NY; Gary IN; Hershey, PA; Pullman IL; Lowell MA [shown below].

Hardy Green surveys the landscape of Company Towns and finds that, while all were patriarchal, only some were run by evil capitalist, anti-union gougers [Henry Clay Frick as pantomime villain]. To a greater or lesser extent, the Company appreciated that happy workers were more productive workers: so some built schools, hospitals, play-grounds and churches . . . even though these amenities didn't directly boost the share-holders' bottom line. When the share-holders were all family, I guess they could do what they wanted. 

The book's envoi looks at the enormous server farms owned by Google and Microsoft. Here the local polity will bend over for shagging to attract an industrial behemoth: build the shed, the roads, the cabling and offer tax-breaks. But they don't need to deal with sewerage because a data-centre the size of Lowell, Mass. capitalized like a small country will nevertheless only employ a few handfuls of tax-payers locally.

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